WASHINGTON -- President Clinton defended his controversial surgeon general, Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, yesterday but firmly dismissed her idea about legalizing drugs.
"I have thought about that a lot, and I disagree with it," he said.
Over lunch with a group of reporters, Mr. Clinton expressed sympathy with those, such as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who think decriminalization would end the epidemic of violence associated with the sale and use of illegal drugs.
"He's somebody that I think is one of the best public officials in this country. I disagree with him, too," the president said.
Mr. Clinton's remarks came during a wide-ranging interview in the airy, seasonally bedecked New Garden Room at Blair House, the presidential guest mansion opposite the White House. The 70-minute session was essentially a press conference, in which several dozen reporters and the president wedged questions and answers around a meal of creamed corn soup, stuffed roast quail and pumpkin sponge cake roll.
At times, Mr. Clinton seemed almost pensive and -- on the subject of how the press has treated him during his first year in office -- mildly combative. Among the topics covered were:
* North Korea. Mr. Clinton gave his most pessimistic assessment to date of the brewing crisis over the communist regime's refusal to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities.
He said he hopes the situation does not become a "full-blown crisis" but added, "I'm not positive that we can [avoid] one.
"If, God forbid," a military conflict erupted with North Korea, he said, "we do what we have to do."
* Gun control. Mr. Clinton spoke favorably of letting police stop and frisk citizens for concealed firearms without a search warrant, saying, "We should consider a lot of things that we haven't done in the past."
But he said he would want to consult with Attorney General Janet Reno and other Justice Department officials before endorsing this or any other idea. He also gave qualified support to New York Mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani's proposal of creating federal standards for gun registration and letting states handle the paperwork in the same way they now register cars.
"There has been a sea change in public attitude," he said. "I am convinced that most Americans now understand how profoundly important these crime and violence issues are and how it's time to face them."
* His own image. Though only about half the public approves of the job he is doing as president, according to the polls, Mr. Clinton said he hoped Americans would eventually give him credit for making a difference in their lives. "I think the most important thing we can do is give people a sense of momentum and change," he said. "Just keeping working at it and show up for work and let it mount up."
His efforts may be starting to pay off. A new nationwide poll, being released today, reveals a remarkable turnaround in the number of those who believe Mr. Clinton is able to "get things done." By more than 2-to-1, Americans now see Mr. Clinton as a can-do president, according to the survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. In August, most of those questioned believed the president was not able to get things done.
Mr. Clinton's success in getting Congress to pass the Brady gun-control bill and North American Free Trade Agreement legislation, which he signed yesterday, as well as the release of his health care reform package, are cited as the principal reasons for his new image as an achiever, according to the Times Mirror Center, which conducted the poll Dec. 2-5.
* His biggest frustrations. Mr. Clinton said he still had not learned how to use the "bully pulpit" effectively enough and expressed unhappiness over his inability to reach the country with his message every time he speaks. He also made plain his unhappiness with the way the Washington press corps covered his first year in office, remarking sourly that he had been deprived of the honeymoon typically granted to new presidents.
Mr. Clinton appeared to blame the press when he said that presidents no longer seem to get "astronomical" job ratings from the public -- "unless somehow you all decide to canonize [the president], which, it seems to me, you've all decided it's either not appropriate or in your interest to do so."
* The revolving door. Mr. Clinton said he was "fully satisfied" with the recent decision by the chief White House lobbyist, Howard Paster, to accept a job with one of the nation's largest lobbying and public relations firms, as long as his former aide abides by new ethics guidelines put into effect by the administration. Mr. Clinton had campaigned against influence-peddling by Washington's permanent class and required his aides to agree to a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments and a five-year ban on lobbying the White House. Mr. Clinton said it was never his intention to "discourage people from moving in and out of government."
Much of the president's comments revolved around the issues of crime and violence, spurred by Dr. Elders' remarks and by this week's shooting aboard a New York commuter train that left five people dead.
There have been calls by Republicans for Dr. Elders to be fired, after she told an audience Monday that legalizing drugs would dramatically reduce the crime rate without markedly increasing the use of drugs.